Hagar Ben-Ari shines as the lone female star of James Corden's house band
She's jammed with Prince, opened for the Rolling Stones and now has what she calls the best job on late-night TV.
Her name may not be familiar, but if you’ve watched CBS’ “The Late Late Show” with James Corden, you’ve seen and heard Hagar Ben-Ari. She’s the bass player on bandleader Reggie Watts’ left, the only female member of the house band Karen. After working as a touring musician for most of her life, the Israeli-born Ben-Ari is enjoying the less peripatetic job she’s had for the past two years.
“Not having to go on the road is amazing. I love the band and I love having creative input,” she told From The Grapevine in an exclusive interview. “TV bands often play covers. We play our own original music. Sometimes I miss playing big tours, but I don’t miss the travel part of it. And I love getting to meet and see all my heroes on the show.”
Getting to play with Lady Gaga and meet Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise are great perks of the job, she said, and she’ll get to see Cruise again when “The Late Late Show” broadcasts from London June 6-8. Nicole Kidman, David Beckham, Emily Blunt, Jennifer Hudson, Kit Harington, Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran (who will be performing on a "Carpool Karaoke" segment) are also on the guest list for the special British episodes. And it’s travel that Ben-Ari doesn’t mind making. She’s been to the U.K. for gigs before, but didn’t have time to see anything. “A lot of people that work on the show are from there. I’m going to try to tag along with them,” she said.
Ben-Ari “devoted my life to music from an early age. I was always performing,” she said, noting that her father is a guitar teacher. Influenced by Charlie Mingus, Chuck Rainey and Led Zeppelin and drawn to blues and jazz in particular, she decided, at the suggestion of her dad, to focus on the less-popular bass to stand out from all the guitarists. She called the instrument “the combination of harmony and rhythm, which I equally love. It’s the heartbeat of the music. You might not hear it but you always feel it.”
She grew up in Tel Aviv, and misses the nightlife there. “I’ve never been to a city that parties like Tel Aviv,” she says, noting that she visits a couple times a year. “There’s such an amazing energy. You end up at the beach, swimming in the middle of the night. The people have a level of honesty that I really love. And the food is incredible.”
She had a thriving career, opening for Israeli singer Noa and playing in a weekly TV show’s house band. But seeking greater opportunities, Ben-Ari decided to move to the U.S. in 2003, when she was 23, choosing New York over Los Angeles. “I was surprised how quickly I was able to pick up gigs,” she explained. Those included four years with Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, who opened for Prince in Europe. “He sat in with us during our set and then invited us to an after-party in a club in Paris, where we played a long jam session with Prince and his band and our band.”
She backed up singer Grace Potter, opening for the Rolling Stones, and filled in at the Broadway show “Kinky Boots,” just before she moved to L.A. for “The Late Late Show.” She’d heard that Reggie Watts was looking for a bass player via mutual friends who recommended her. They jammed, they clicked, and she had just four days to pack up and move cross-country to start rehearsals.
“It was a lot to move my life so quickly,” she told us. “But you get to a point where you feel like you’re a homeless person, without roots” [when you always tour]. “I was ready to have a home.” Soon, her boyfriend, guitarist Nadav Peled (also from Israel, though they met in Brooklyn), will join her in Los Angeles after two years apart, and they plan to marry.
As for professional plans, Karen has started playing at the L.A. club Zebulon and is recording songs for an album, and Ben-Ari is working on music of her own. She also plays guitar, drums and piano and hopes to work on film, video and TV scores and have her own band in the future. She’d also like to teach female music students, as she did for a time at a school in Israel.
“I always knew I loved this kind of work,” Ben-Ari told From The Grapevine. Her present gig is her cushiest yet. “All the bands you love come to you. I love the people and the atmosphere. There’s so much excitement when you create a live TV show. It’s always something different.”
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